How to Make Soap with Rhinoceros Fat, Eastern Sudan

In spite of current trends to reduce or omit fat from diets and cuisines, fat is basic to many of our lifeways. Here, Sir Baker explains not only how to make soap out of rhinoceros fat, but also other uses for the different fats rendered from elephants, hippopotami, and lions.

Samuel Baker, – The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia and the Sword Hunters of the Hamran Arabs.

During the 12 months spent by Sir Baker and his wife Florence in tracing the Blue Nile sources in Eastern Sudan, they learned a considerable amount about local flora, fauna and technology from the inhabitants. Combining that knowledge with Sir Baker’s own technical know-how, they were – as described also in past blogs – able to survive quite nicely by fabricating a variety of products ( see How to render Animal Fat among the Obbo, Northern Uganda on the production of fat, for example).

In this entry, Sir Baker describes how to make soap from native ingredients.

We had a large supply of various kinds of fat, including that of elephants, hippopotami, lions, and rhinoceros; but our stock of soap was exhausted, therefore I determined to convert a quantity of our grease into that very necessary article.

Soap-boiling is not so easy as may be imagined; it requires not only much attention, but the quality is dependent upon the proper mixture of the alkalis. Sixty parts of potash and forty of lime are, I believe, the proportions for common soap. I had neither lime nor potash, but I shortly procured both.

Balanites aegyptiaca, or heglig, has many medicinal and culinary uses.


The hegleek tree (Balanites Egyptiaca) was extremely rich in potash … and the fruit, which is about the size and shape of a date, is sometimes pounded and used by the Arabs in lieu of soap for washing their clothes. … I burned a large quantity [of the wood], and made a strong ley with the ashes; this I concentrated by boiling.

African helping to excavate a termite mound. Source; Smeathman 1781 Nat. History Mus., London

There was no limestone; but the river produced a plentiful supply of large oyster-shells, that, if burned, would yield excellent lime. Accordingly I constructed a kiln, with the assistance of the white ants. The country was infested with these creatures, which had erected their dwellings in all directions; these were cones from six to ten feet high, formed of clay so thoroughly cemented by a glutinous preparation of the insects, that it was harder than sun-baked brick.

I selected an egg-shaped hill, and cut off the top, exactly as we take off the slice from an egg. My Tokrooris [a local ethnic group] then worked hard, and with a hoe and their lances, they hollowed it out to the base, in spite of the attacks of the ants, which punished the legs of the intruders considerably.

I now made a draught-hole from the outside base, at right angles with the bottom of the hollow cone. My kiln was perfect. I loaded it with wood, upon which I piled about six bushels of oyster-shells, which I then covered with fuel, and kept it burning for twenty-four hours. This produced excellent lime, and I commenced my soap-boiling.

We possessed an immense copper pot of Egyptian manufacture, in addition to a large and deep copper basin called a “teshti.” These would contain about ten gallons. The ley having been boiled down to great strength, I added a quantity of lime, and the necessary fat.

It required ten hours’ boiling, combined with careful management of the fire, as it would frequently ascend like foam, and overflow the edge of the utensils. However, at length, having been constantly stirred, it turned to soap.

Before it became cold, I formed it into cakes and balls with my hands, and the result of the manufacture was a weight of about forty pounds of most excellent soap, of a very sporting description, “Savon a la bete feroce.”

We thus washed with rhinoceros soap; our lamp was trimmed with oil of lions; our butter for cooking purposes was the fat of hippopotami, while our pomade was made from the marrow of buffaloes and antelopes, scented with the blossoms of mimosas.

We were entirely independent, as our whole party had subsisted upon the produce of the rod and the rifle.


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Africa-East, Colonialism, Explorers & exploration, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to Make Soap with Rhinoceros Fat, Eastern Sudan

  1. Pingback: How to render Animal Fat among the Obbo, Northern Uganda « Dianabuja's Blog

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